“It’s like Blade Runner with lasers!” exclaims one of the attendees as a futuristic bass line sounds over the monitors.
I’m at Mustard Tree for the third instalment in a 10-week-long Electronic Music Production Course, and this week it’s all about ‘Effects’. In a small room towards the back of the art studio at the charity’s base in Ancoats, we’re about to get to grips with flange, chorus, delay, envelopes, filters, cut-offs, and much more. There’s a lot to get through in two hours.
A hip-hop drum beat loops around and around, a product of the last two sessions where the guys have been introduced to the software, virtual instruments, and percussion. They’ve got the backbone of a track down and now it’s time to start giving it some texture. One by one, they twiddle virtual knobs, manipulating the sounds of the cymbals, bongos, and other instruments. It’s taking shape nicely.
This course is just one of Mustard Tree’s many projects that have been spearheaded by artist and Creative Programmes Manager Graham Hudson. Before the course begins, we chat briefly about the positive impact music can have, both making and listening to it, and the way it differs to art in making a more visceral connection with its audience – he tells me about the life-changing experience he had when he first listened to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland as a 9-year-old.
While Graham is understandably hopeful about the impact this course will have on the participants, he explains that it was born from tragedy.
The music studio is named after James Hardy, a former client of Mustard Tree who sadly took his own life. He was a talented guitarist and Graham reminisces about how he used to sit in the art studio and play while others painted. The studio’s equipment was left to the charity as a legacy in his memory. The plan is for Mustard Tree’s clients to learn the skills needed to make their own music on this course, before using the equipment to write, record, and even perform their own stuff. Once the track being worked on this evening is completed, it will become the first in a Mustard Tree Soundcloud account. Graham also tells me of the plans to expand into a much larger studio downstairs in the future with involvement from Manchester University.
The setup they’ve got already is envious enough. There’s some state-of-the-art equipment: a Mackie mixing desk, Genelec monitors, an Oxygen midi keyboard. I also spy two condenser mics in the corners of the room that will come into play when the group get around to recording vocals. The quality of the sounds they can produce will undoubtedly be top-notch.
“It’s better than what I’ve got at home”, confesses Geoff McGuire. Geoff is the man responsible for teaching the course – he has a passion for deep house and, from what I can see, a passion for sharing his knowledge of producing music with others.
For Geoff, making music had been nothing more than a hobby; a hobby that nonetheless saw his music recognised by some big players in the industry under his pseudonym of Stonedove. He fell back in love with producing around 8 months ago and it was by chance that his expertise and Mustard Tree have ended up benefitting each other. As a project manager for Barclays, Geoff was involved in a Make A Difference (MAD) day that saw his team renovating part of Mustard Tree’s premises. He got chatting to Graham, who mentioned the music studio, and a partnership was born.
Geoff was originally a traditional kind of producer, suspicious of virtual instruments and sceptical that they could sound as good as the real thing: “It feels like cheating, you know?” But he soon came round to the idea. And it’s easy to see why. Having an army of keyboards would be expensive and take up too much valuable space. Watching the participants loading up synth after synth and playing about with the pre-sets as Geoff guides them, it’s fantastic to see the sheer variety of sounds they come out with. The nodding of the heads as the beat takes hold and the smiles when someone comes up with a nice hook or weird sound make it worth coming along.
Geoff has compiled some impressively detailed handouts for each week that explain how to use the software and give a professional quality to the course. And as he takes us through compression, bit-crushing, and quantising, there’s no doubt in my mind that after 10 weeks of this, I’d be well on my way to having a good shot at making songs of my own.
For anyone who’s interested in making music, this course is a hidden treasure, and a chance to socialise with people from all walks of life. As Graham and I say before we start, there’s really nothing like music to bring people together.
The Electronic Music Production Course takes place every Monday from 7-9pm. If you’re interested in taking part, get in touch with Graham on 0161 228 7331 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.